Archive for April, 2015

Buffalo Bulls Athletics: No Place to Go

April 22, 2015

Big city, small conference hampers efforts

by John Furgele

The Buffalo Bulls appeared to be heading in the right direction.  In football, they hired a proven winner, and more importantly, a program builder when they plucked Lance Leipold from Wisconsin-Whitewater.  In basketball, they got the big name in Bobby Hurley and even though he had no head coaching experience, the name alone was enough to get Buffalo basketball on the radar.  The only better hire might have been Christian Laettner.

We can dissect the Hurley departure any way we want do, but at best, Hurley would have been gone in two years. There are certainly no guarantees that the Bulls would have made the NCAA Tournament in 2016 because of the one bid nature of the Mid American Conference, but the odds would have been good for next year’s team to win at least 20 games.  And, each successful year put in by Hurley would have just led to more and more speculation that he would leave.

Personally, I thought Hurley would have stayed at Buffalo for one more season.  He certainly garnered enough attention and one would think that three years at Buffalo would have landed him the higher profile job that he would ultimate covet and want.  Fortunately, for Hurley, it only took two years.

We can also speculate how everything went down, too.  Did AD Danny White leak information about Hurley signing an extension? Did the Buffalo athletic department only offer him $1,000 more than the highest paid MAC coach was making? We might never know the true particulars, but ultimately, Hurley had to take the Arizona State job.  Let’s be honest; the Buffalo job is an okay job.  Bad league, bad winter weather and only one chance to make the NCAA Tournament.  At ASU, he walks into a program that spends money, wants to be good but for some reason, can’t seem to get over the hump in college basketball.  Believe it or not, the Sun Devils are adding Division I hockey next season, so their commitment to athletics is strong.

Buffalo had some advantages, too.  For one, even though WNY fans are a passionate bunch, the passion wanes for college athletics.  The fans here would never demand NCAA Tournament or bust each season.  They would be happy with a few appearances here and there.  We know where the passions lie; with the Bills and as evidenced by the two year tank fest, the Sabres.

When Buffalo made the International Bowl under Turner Gill, the WNY faithful got excited, but soon, Turner Gill was gone and by the time the Bulls played in the Potato Bowl in 2013, few outside the UB loyalists cared.

I don’t know Bobby Hurley, but my bet is he wants the Duke job when Coach K finally retires.  In theory, you don’t want to be the guy who follows the guy (where are you Gene Bartow), but in college basketball, there are only four or five programs who ultimately can win the NCAA title.  Duke is one of them.  Coach K is 68, he can’t coach forever and Hurley knew that jumping from Buffalo to Duke would have been very difficult, but jumping from Arizona State to Duke—not so much.

The writing was on the wall even before the wall was built.  Deep down, Buffalo did get shortchanged by Hurley but in a one bid league, paying him close to $1 million would have made no sense.  If the MAC were a four bid league, the high salary could be justified, but UB could go 27-7 next year and if they don’t win the MAC Tournament, they go to the NIT, CIT or some other alphabetical post season alternative.

I worry a bit about Buffalo athletics because they are clearly stuck in college sports purgatory.  Niagara, Canisius and St. Bonaventure know who they are; small schools content in the MAAC and Atlantic 10 respectively.  They view basketball as their high end sport and try to compete each year.  The Bonnies play the best basketball, a multi bid NCAA Tourney league.  If the Bonnies go 24-8, they’re dancing no matter what they do at the A 10 Tournament. Niagara and Canisius are the small, private schools, content to play games on campus and see what happens.

But, Buffalo is a different animal.  They are the big, public “city” university.  Branding aside, they carry the name Buffalo on the jerseys and when West Virginia and Buffalo came up in the brackets, America knew who they were and where they were from.  Ask somebody from West Virginia if they know where Canisius is, or even Siena for that matter.

They are the big guy, but they are stuck in a dreadful conference.  The MAC doesn’t produce national champions in any team sport.  Not volleyball, not cross country, not even bowling.  While the directional Michigans, Ball State and Northern Illinois are content where they are, Buffalo is the restful soul.  Competition wise, Buffalo isn’t ready to be a juggernaut–in any sport–but branding wise, they have bigger aspirations than the MAC.  Geographically, they’re a nice fit, and athletically, they are too, but there’s more to it.  If Buffalo wants to be THE public university in New York, they have to be more like Ohio State than Kent State or Murray State.  But, does anybody want them?

There are some that say Buffalo should pursue a bigger and better basketball conference and drop down to FCS in football and that might have been the route to take before MAC membership.  Buffalo could have tried to get into the Atlantic 10 or even the revised Big East had they stayed at the FCS level for football.  Villanova is the example.  They remained FCS for football, but stayed in the top flight Big East for basketball.  Once Buffalo went into the MAC, there was no turning back as Massachusetts found out.  The Minutemen didn’t want to give up A 10 membership, so the MAC, refusing to keep them as football only, gave them the boot after the 2015 campaign.

Buffalo may have found a great coach in Nate Oats.  And, unlike Hurley, he is a no-name who won’t parlay two good seasons for a Power 5 job.  Because life isn’t fair, Oats will have to bide his time and succeed mightily at Buffalo before moving on.  For the university, that’s a good thing.  But, the big issue is clear and that’s how does Buffalo escape college athletics purgatory?

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A Better Way to Fix Baseball

April 13, 2015

The game is fine, but needs some minor tweaks

by John Furgele

This year, baseball is trying to speed up a timeless game. And, it’s not for the fans at the ballpark, who generally don’t keep of track of time when they’re there. It’s for the couch person, the person who wants to sit down at 7 pm, watch a baseball game and then be in bed shortly after 10 pm. Last year, with the average game running 3 hours 7 minutes, that didn’t happen. Personally, if they enforced rules rather than resort to timers and clocks, the games might have been shorter.

Baseball—like all sports—has problems. Foremost is the length of the season. The attention span of Americans has become shorter and shorter. You can blame high speed internet, online shopping, Smart and I phones, and the fact that we are addicted to them; but the bottom line is that it’s tough to devote three hours to anything unless it’s really, really important. TV ratings will never be great when there are 162 games over 26 weekends of action. If you miss one game, there are 161 more and then one becomes 30 and before long, it’s Thanksgiving. Basketball and hockey with their bloated 82 game seasons also suffer from this, so let’s not ignore them either.

Another problem with baseball is the sports refusal to showcase all the teams. They prefer to give you Yankees-Red Sox and Dodgers-Giants regardless of record and even mid-season, they refuse to alter that strategy. In the NFL, they flex games, so if it’s Week 14 and the Eagles and Giants are 5-8, that game gets dumped from prime time for a better one. How many times did ESPN show you the Royals last year?

Offense is down in baseball and the sport continues to play by two sets of rules, even though there is interleague play every day. It’s time to ask for forgiveness from the purists and make the National League adopt the designated hitter. As mentioned, offense is down, and pitchers have enough trouble staying healthy just pitching. We don’t ask the field goal kicker to punt anymore, why make the pitcher bat? And, asking the American League pitcher to bat in a National League park is almost inhumane.

Watching the Yankees play the Red Sox 19 times and for that matter, Tigers-Indians is just too much. Baseball likes to think that’s what everybody wants, but it’s simply not true anymore. And, it’s also not fair. In the old days, where just the division winners made the playoffs, it made sense, but with two wild cards, the unbalanced schedule doesn’t cut it anymore. If the Yankees are competing against the Red Sox AND the Mariners, then they should have equal cracks at both teams. When baseball instituted the wild card in 1995, people scoffed, but after the Yankees and Mariners hooked up in that memorable Division Series—won by Seattle in five games—the skeptics and the scoffing stopped.

Baseball should steal something from the English Premier League and get out the table. Forget about the archaic divisions, and eliminate them. Line the American League and National League teams up 1 thru 16 and have a go at it. That’s right, 1 thru 16 because baseball needs to expand by two teams to get to 32. Put an National League team in Mexico City (18 million people) and an American League one in Montreal, a city you abandoned and divorced well before 2005 when they moved.

This would create a 16 team table and the top five or even six would make the playoffs. You can say what you what about expanding playoffs, but that’s really what America enjoys. Most of us monitor the regular season, but many of us watch the playoffs. We love the sense of urgency because as previously stated, our attention spans are short.

Montreal would flourish in the American League because they would have natural rivalries with Toronto, Boston and the Yankees and Mexico City would fare well with Miami, Arizona and San Diego. The table creates fairness because to make the playoffs you would get equal cracks at your opponents.

The table plan would eliminate interleague play on a nightly basis, obviously with an even number teams, it isn’t necessary. If I were the king, I would eliminate interleague play altogether because the Giants aren’t competing against the Yankees for the playoffs. If that was done, each team would play opponents an average of 10.8 times per season. My math skills notwithstanding, that would be tinkered with to make it 162. The Yankees would still play the Red Sox 11 times per year, but they would get the same amount of games against the Detroit Tigers and Oakland A’s.

If interleague play is maintained, league teams could play each other 10 times, leaving 12 games to play teams from the other league. The NFL, NBA and NHL have interconference games, so it wouldn’t be a bad thing to keep it going in baseball. However, forcing Yankee fans to watch Mike Napoli 19 times and Robinson Cano just six, to me, doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Think about the table. You could take the top five teams for the playoffs, have 4 play 5 in the one game wild card, or, you could take the top six teams and give the top two teams a bye (rewarding the regular season) and have 3 play 6 and 4 play 5 in preferably a best of three. The NFL has 32 teams and takes 12 for the playoffs and before long, it will be 14. The playoffs are what get people excited. The ratings soar and the interest goes from marginal to substantial. The regular season serves a great purpose. It is a product and it provides entertainment for millions of people, but Americans can’t get enough of postseason action.

Few products can survive without evolution. Ketchup and mustard are two, but the mantra of change or die has never been more relevant. The great thing about the new baseball plan is that after 15 years, you could change it again. Nothing has to be permanent, but why not practice other ideas? Doing so will certainly at the very least, generate a lot of talk and buzz and even gain some new fans, which is the ultimate goal of any sport.

Time to Put an End to Tanking

April 3, 2015

Tank talk only stains the game

by John Furgele

The NHL and NBA have major image problems and it’s not because their athletes are getting arrested and doing other low life things, it’s the image that the games are being compromised. Sports are supposed to be an escape from the modern stresses of living in what I call the grind of everyday life. People work, child rear, pay bills, stress out over money and so on and so forth, but for many, kicking back at 8 pm to watch a hockey or basketball game provides some entertainment before going to bed and repeating the grind the next day.

The NBA has the problem of “resting” its stars. I don’t remember guys like Dave Cowens, John Havlichek, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan missing games when they were healthy. Now, the San Antonio Spurs travel to Miami and they leave Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker home to rest while they’re JV team plays the road game. That’s just one of the problems. Sure, the season can be a grind, but what about the fan who orders tickets three or six months in advance for that game? He or she might spend $300 per ticket and when the day finally comes, the stars are resting. We all know that players get injured and that’s entirely different than being a healthy inactive.

The NHL also has had a tough year. There are two can’t miss prospects in this year’s draft. One is junior star Connor McDavid and the other is Boston University forward Jack Eichel. In the NHL, the team that finishes 30th (last) has a 20 percent chance of securing the number one pick and is guaranteed the number two pick. If you finish 29th, all bets are off. Currently, the Buffalo Sabres are in 30th place, two points behind the 29th place Arizona Coyotes. The talk of tanking has dominated the talk shows in Buffalo and on Twitter and social media. When I see and hear professional journalists lament a win or talk tank, it makes me sad. And, how do the Buffalo Sabres players feel? The fans actually wan t them to lose so they can finish 30th. These are guys that live in town and go to stores.

The Sabres recently hosted the Coyotes and according to the people that covered the game, it was eerie. When Arizona scored, some cheered, knowing that each Coyote goal would help cement Buffalo’s 30th place standing. When the Sabres scored, there was mixed cheering. Most fans didn’t outwardly cheer against Buffalo, but deep down, they cheered against the team that a year ago lost so much that people wanted heads to roll.

In many ways, you can’t blame the fans. Fans pay good money (too much) for sports events and with salaries and revenues skyrocketing, don’t think your cable bill is going to stay the same either. The Sabres have never won a Stanley Cup title and that’s going back to 1970, when the entered the league. In fact, they have only played in two finals in 1975 and 1999, so their frustration has merit. It is easy to see why Sabre fan wants to finish 30th. The thinking is logical. Finish 30th, get one of these studs, build around him and contend for the cup for a decade. In true Easter fashion, it’s sacrifice now for the greater good.

The Philadelphia 76ers are doing the same thing, in fact, management has told the fan base that they don’t expect to contend for the NBA title for five more years. They have been accused of tanking, yet the league does nothing to dissuade them—and other teams—for doing so. Unfortunately for the 18-58 76ers, the Knicks have only won 14 games.

Players don’t tank, let’s be clear. They have too much pride and are much too competitive to do that. There’s a reason why they’ve made it to the NBA and NHL (NFL, MLB, too) so to suggest otherwise is silly. I also don’t think management encourages tanking one iota. What they do though is assemble as bad a team as they can so they won’t win many games. You could put the Triple A Buffalo Bisons in the American League East and though they’ll try as hard as they can, they might win 50 of the 162 games. As they say, you can put lipstick on a pig, but what remains is still a pig.

Once again, image is the issue. There will always be bad teams. Who doesn’t love the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers with their 0-14 record and then 0-12 to start 1977? Were they not beloved? But, we know that the one thing that Buccaneer team didn’t do was tank. They tried, but in a word, they stunk. When tanking becomes the subject of eight hours of sports talk (four in the morning, four more in the afternoon), that is wrong. We all know that sports talk radio has veered away from talking about games because that doesn’t provide enough flash anymore, so rather than talk about the quality of the draft, the talk is tanking, finishing 30th and getting McDavid or Eichel.

If you’re NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, you have to be going crazy inside. Love him or hate him, he has done the owners well. They have a decent TV deal in the United States and Canada, player salaries are up as is revenue, but tank talk stains the game. The image is that the Buffalo Sabres, Arizona Coyotes and Edmonton Oilers want to lose so they can get the future superstar. In sum, the league is rewarding awful and that hurts. The goal is to try to win each and every night you play. Yes, you might have to play the backup goalie some nights and the guy who has a slightly sprained ankle can take a few games off, but when you hear things like “three more games,” and we’re home free in 30th place has to gnaw at those that run the league.

The answer is simple. Don’t reward the 30th place team. In the NHL and NBA, 16 teams make the playoffs, 17 thru 30 do not. When it’s time for the draft, put 14 balls in the hopper and draw them out one by one. The first ball drawn gets the first pick, the last one gets the 14th. Many will say it’s not fair if the 17th team gets the number one pick to which I say, oh well. Life isn’t fair my friends. Doing this ensures that tanking will no longer be an issue and fans can go to NBA and NHL games knowing that trying to win is the goal. The Sabre fan can go to games not caring about 18th place or 26th place and not staying up late to see how the Coyotes do when they play the Los Angeles Kings.

The NFL should do the same thing, because tank talk also happens. When the Jets beat Tennessee and then Miami in the last game of the regular season, the talkers in New York lamented by saying there goes any chance of getting Winston or Mariota. Once again, this is both sad and absurd. Do you think Geno Smith, the struggling Jet quarterback wants the team to tank and get Winston? Of course not, but the fans; they do want that. The NFL should do the same. Put teams 13-32 in the hopper, all with an equal chance of getting the number one pick. Imagine what that would do on Draft Day? The 13th place team with the higher pick could trade down and the dealings on draft day would be off the charts.

The world will move forward if teams keep tanking for years to come, but if you’re running a league, there are enough issues to keep one busy and tank talk could be eliminated very easily. The NBA owners were reluctant to do away with the weighted lottery system where the crummier teams have a better chance of getting the higher and highest pick, and that’s a shame. Here’s hoping that they will come to their senses and realize that tanking takes away from what most sports fans want and that is a breather from the daily grind.